In 1877, when Christian European missionaries arrived in what is now Uganda with the aim of introducing European-style schooling and evangelism, some indigenous leaders, who had the expansion of their tribe’s political power in mind, welcomed them. In the Buganda kingdom (one of the biggest ethnic groups after which Uganda is named), chiefs and servants were instructed on Christianity, literacy, arithmetic, agriculture and history – all of which were taught through a religious and Eurocentric lens. Though additional influences by Catholic missionaries and Arab traders led to conflicts and tensions, British Protestants maintained the upper hand in the kingdom and maintained control over educational materials.

In 1894, British control over the region was formally established through the Uganda Protectorate. Since then, Ugandan education has existed in two forms: ‘traditional’ education (in which children are educated at home via proverbs, storytelling, oral histories and the moral teachings of elders), and ‘official’ education (in which children follow a centralized curriculum at school, and are assessed via formal examinations based on Western models). By imposing the second form in an attempt to ‘civilize’ Ugandans, British hegemony pushed traditional education, and consequently native Ugandan knowledge and culture, into a position of perceived irrelevance. The dissonance between these pedagogical forms is especially pronounced given Uganda’s ethnic and cultural diversity. Uganda’s current national borders are still based on colonial ones, which the British imposed without regard for existing sociopolitical systems by which fifty-or-so native tribes organized and governed themselves. The latent consequence of this negligence is that, rather than allowing for an organic sense of unified ‘Ugandanness’ to flourish, bottom-up traditional education in Uganda remains fragmented according to ethnic and tribal lines. As we shall see, the successful construction of a unified sense of national identity tends to be contingent upon a shared sense of history, but neither the top-down Eurocentric perspectives of the British curriculum, nor the heavily fragmented bottom-up teachings of diverse tribal teachings could facilitate this.

This was far from accidental.

Though state control over education increased via the establishment of a ministry of education, and Christianization was heavily encouraged, British colonial policy in Uganda remained guided by ‘divide and rule’ principles. In actively facilitating ethnic and tribal conflicts, and preventing Ugandans from relating positively to each other though, for instance, identifying with each other historically, this policy aimed at preventing the potential dangers posed by the native majority collaborating against the British minority. While this period saw a marked rise in European nationalisms, colonial influence prevented Uganda from relating to the newly established ‘nation’ at all. Indeed, though its borders coincide with that of modern Uganda, diffused Ugandan identity today can be traced to the fact that the Protectorate of Uganda was never intended to be a national unit for the benefit of its native people – it was instead designed as a source of British wealth and geopolitical power.

Consequently, though most Ugandans did not attend formal education, those who did were actively instructed to consider themselves developmentally, historically, technologically and spiritually subordinate to their British ‘masters’. Besides religious education, one of the most powerful tools by which to justify British colonial rule was through history. Education was thus used and abused in several ways, also to help justify the subordination of the local people to British colonial rule. For example, British commissioners controlled the curriculum, mitigating any information that was identified as knowledge that would potentially undermine colonial authority in what Greene calls ‘carefully chosen silences’ (Greene, Creating a Nation Without a Past, 106). In short: British history was taught, African history was not. Given that these were the foundations of the modern curriculum, it is safe to say that from the start, historical education was a strong instrument in weakening native confidence in Uganda’s political ability, cultural relevance, or national power.

Let us also give an example to demonstrate how Eurocentric the curriculum was in these times. The overall message of the syllabus was: Africa owed its development, indeed its very place on the world map, to European initiative. In a History school book, a section called ‘The Dark Continent – Filling the Map of Africa’ taught students about the ‘exploration’ of Africa; The teachers were instructed to begin the section with a large sheet of paper on which they drew a map of the Mediterranean and West Europe, representing the then known world. Africa was to be left blank and then filled in little by little. To contrast this with a later development, an official from the Ministry of Education said that, “Instead of saying Speke ‘discovered’ the source of the Nile we are now saying he was the first white man to say it” (quoted after Greene, Creating a Nation Without a Past, 116).

Before Ugandan independence in 1962, there was a process of preparation, where Ugandans were educated in order to obtain the necessary skills and knowledge to govern their nation. Some would argue that this was also a chance for the British to place those who would remain loyal to them into positions of power. Buganda Kabaka Muteesa II became the first President of Uganda, Milton Obote became its first Prime Minister. Instead of reintroducing traditional education, the British system was ‘revamped.’ The school curriculum, especially History, was Africanized and nationalized to promote a Ugandan and an African identity. During Muteesa’s, and later Obote’s rule, efforts were being made to centralize education, and thus to rid it of religious and ethnic influences. Still, hangovers from the colonial period meant that ethnic and trival divisions remained severe.

During Idi Amin’s rule, education was not a priority, and his rule also led to the institutionalization of unequal treatment of the different ethnic groups, as he favored some more than others. After several interim leaders and power struggles, the National Resistance Army declared their leader, Yoweri Museveni, the new president in 1986 (a position he maintains today). In the guerilla war that they had waged, many schools were destroyed, and the continuation of education was hindered.

Education has since become more nationalized and, overall, top-down efforts to strengthen Ugandan national identity have increased in success. Some of Museveni’s supporters formed the National Resistance Movement, which has advocated the inclusion of all Ugandans, regardless of their ethnicity, ideology, or previous political affiliation. The education program of the NRA (chacka-mchaka) has been incorporated in today’s Social Studies curriculum for the primary schools.

The idea behind nationalized History education was that it would change people’s perspectives towards others on a national level, and fostered relatively more peaceful interethnic relations. At the same time, however, the emphasis on schooling has also led to a deepened decline of traditional culture and education – a tension we explore in our podcast.

Ugandan Education Today

There are, of course, also practical challenges to consider when it comes to studying the Ugandan education system, though we did not believe they were within the scope of our theory-based podcast. For instance,  school enrolment rates in Uganda have heightened rapidly and mass education is expanding more and more. However, still one of the big problems in Uganda is that many students drop out of primary school after a few years and only a small portion of the population completes secondary school, and as little as 4% attend tertiary institutions like universities. The Ugandan school curriculum is now revised every 5 to 7 years by the government, and the National Curriculum Development Centre of the Ministry of Education and Sports is endeavored to make the curriculum-building process more inclusive. Still, the quality of education has not improved as rapidly as the increase in access to schooling. For instance, the teachers are not always trained according to the newest curriculums, and educational infrastructure (safe schools, desks, sanitation, books, etc.) remain scarcer than is ideal.